The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 74/No. 49      December 27, 2010

Black farmers win payments,
keep fighting discrimination
(front page)
WASHINGTON—On December 8 President Barack Obama signed a measure to provide additional funding in the settlement of a long-standing discrimination lawsuit brought by Black farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The law provides $1.15 billion for Black farmers. It also includes $3.4 billion for Native Americans who sued the federal government in 1996 for swindling them out of revenues earned from tribal lands.

Additional funding for the Black farmers’ case was promised by the Obama administration in February 2010, after years of protests by farmers. After passing the House of Representatives, the money was stalled in the U.S. Senate until November 19. While many senators claimed to support the settlement, others were able to hold up approval for months, stating that they couldn’t vote for any measure that would increase the federal deficit.

The measure finally passed when funds were made available from a “surplus” in nutrition programs for women and children known as WIC, a Department of Treasury program to recover “overpayments” of unemployment benefits, and other sources. Gary Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, asked, “How in the world, we wonder, can WIC have a nearly $570 million surplus in these times? If folks who need food assistance have been bureaucratically removed from the rolls to create a surplus, we are outraged.”

The Black farmers’ class-action lawsuit, known as Pigford v. Glickman, was filed in 1997. Farmers, mainly in the South, sued the USDA for discrimination in loans, disaster relief, and other farm programs.

Lucious Abrams, 57, a farmer from Waynesboro, Georgia, was one of the original six plaintiffs in the Pigford case and helped organize other farmers into the fight. In the mid-1980s, local USDA loan officers kept telling him to come back later or wait a little longer on his loan applications. “When you can’t get your money on time to operate, two or three weeks in the farming industry—that’s like if you need water to drink and you can’t get it till three days later,” Abrams told the Augusta Chronicle. In 1999 a consent decree settling the Black farmers’ case was approved. That settlement promised farmers a $50,000 payment, as well as loan forgiveness, tax breaks, and priority consideration for future loans.

Of the original 22,547 claims filed, 41 percent were denied. An additional 75,000 claims were also denied on the basis that they were filed after a September 2000 deadline. Some $1 billion was disbursed.

Black farmers continued to demand that the settlement be expanded to include those denied, finally resulting in the measure signed December 8.  
Contesting Black farmers’ claims
Some capitalist politicians and media began taking aim at the settlement before the ink was dry. An editorial in the December 8 Investor’s Business Daily was titled “Reparations? When Pigford Flies.” “Pigford is an outright raid on the U.S. Treasury that needs to be investigated. No doubt there are valid minority claims for discrimination, but when there are more claimants than farmers, we smell a scam,” the editors wrote.

The law signed by Obama includes provisions to investigate each application and make regular reports to Congress. As in the first Pigford settlement, this will undoubtedly mean that thousands of staff hours and millions of dollars will be spent by the federal government to contest Black farmers’ claims.

Black farmers report that the day-to-day functioning of local USDA offices where decisions are made about loan applications remains largely unchanged. “The USDA is still refusing us,” Willie James Brown, 77, of Marbury, Alabama, told the Militant in a phone interview. He raises corn, peas, watermelon, hay, and cattle on his 451-acre farm north of Montgomery. “In some ways, it’s worse than when we started.”

“We organized 50 young Black farmers into a cooperative in 2005,” Brown said. “Now all but a few have given up because they couldn’t get financing. We’ve had disastrous weather conditions. You apply for a loan or for disaster relief and it doesn’t come or you only get a small part of what you need.”

“We go up to the [USDA] office to inquire about our applications. They’re sitting in there, drinking coffee and talking and laughing. ‘We’re working on it,’ they say. If you do a budget and take it up there to request a $30,000 loan, which isn’t very much, they will say, ‘Can you get by with $5,000 or $6,000?’ And then they only give you a few hundred dollars at a time; you have to keep going back,” Brown added.

“We talk to our white farmer friends and they always get their money first. They ask us, ‘You mean you haven’t gotten yours yet?’ This kind of treatment is what has run all these young farmers out. Our fight is not near over.”  
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